Friday, November 22, 2013

7 Awesome Epic Rap Battles of History

One of my favorite current web series started, as such web series often do, rather innocuously, with a small cult following as the videos gradually began to gain viewership. The concept is amazingly simple: two (although that may expand to three, or two teams of two, depending on the situation) historical figures, they can be fictional or not, duke it out verbally, trading off rap verses simultaneously building themselves up while cutting the other person down. The videos each only last a couple minutes max, but they are packed with all sorts of references in every line, making them funny, creative, and, for something comedic, surprisingly educational.

As the viewership has steadily grown over time, fans have been given the privilege of voting for the next battle and this has allowed for some pretty awesome pairings. A lot of credit has to go to the amazing wardrobe and make-up artists who have had to cover some diverse likenesses, from Al Capone and Blackbeard, to the Mario Bros. and Batman, all the way to Ben Franklin and Elvis Presley. Of course, the writing, which is top-notch, and the spirited performances are mostly in the hands of two amazingly capable and charming performers: EpicLloyd (whose "Dis Raps for Hire" are awesome) and NicePeter, a great musician. They appear in all the rap battles, although not always as the stars. The bulk of the rest of the cast is made up of prominent YouTube stars: Jenna Marbles, famous for "The Face" and How to Trick People Into Thinking You're Good Looking, plays Eve in the Adam VS. Eve/Men VS. Women battle; Jesse and Jeana of PrankVSPrank appear as Leonidas and Queen Gorgo against Master Chief; and KassemG has made several appearances, often as himself. Peppered in there are some pretty famous people outside of YouTube: Key and Peele appear against each other as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, and Snoop Dog/Lion/Muskrat appears as Moses against Santa Claus.

Like I said, one of the masterful things about the ERB's is their brevity. None of them go much longer than 2 minutes, but they are packed with visual jokes and allusions to the characters on many levels that warrant more than one viewing.

Here are seven of my favorites.
(And here's their channel.)

Honorable Mentions

The runners-up in my opinion are certainly not bad, just an essential X-Factor is missing from each one for me.
Frank Sinatra VS. Freddie Mercury is damn good for Mercury. I find Sinatra to be slightly disappointing. There should be more charm and class to him, because he's going against the bombastic, fantastic Mercury, who has a voice, range, musicality, and musical prowess, but Sinatra was just as endearing to the populace but his raps don't show that.
Michael Jackson VS. Elvis Presley suffers the same problem for me. I love the transformation of both: little MJ to Smooth Criminal MJ and early rock & roll Elvis to late Vegas Elvis. But Vegas Elvis doesn't bring it home like other final verses do. (My personal favorite is Clint Eastwood ending his fight against Bruce Lee with:
"I'd beat you in round two but that'd be unbelievable
No one in your family ever lived to see a sequel")
Jackson's transformation is great, and little MJ rocks it too. I also love the rap style of early Elvis.
And William Shakespeare VS. Dr. Seuss is pretty badass on multiple levels: Seuss never speaks, letting his famous characters do the rapping for him, but Shakespeare owns, with George Watsky singing an ultra-fast patter, and even doing some of it in iambic pentameter. Thing 1 and Thing 2 ending the battle is a cool gimmick, just not an interesting finale to me. 

Of course, Darth Vader VS. Adolf Hitler is what launched ERB's into a new level of popularity, as it was arguably the "viral" video of the bunch. History's most despicable icon rapping against the darkest of fictional dark lords is a guilty pleasure to behold, and much like the fabled Trilogy itself, Vader and Hitler's 2nd encounter is the strongest to me. The fact that there was more comedic gold to mine for a second outing speaks volumes to its quality.

7.) Billy Mays VS. Ben Franklin

This is one of early Rap Battles. The guy playing Billy Mays is dead-on.
The heart attack and death may seem sad in the middle of the battle, but then his replacement rap partner knocks it into the stratosphere. Franklin has some awesome lines too, my particular favorite being:
"I'll craft a lyrical coffin and then spit the nails in
Call me Arthur Miller son, cause it's death of a salesman"

6.) Albert Einstein VS. Stephen Hawking

Arguably the stronger performance of MC Mr Napkins (though his Doc Brown is pretty good too) as Einstein who gets in some quick wheelchair jokes ("take a seat, oh! I see you brought your own.") and Stephen Hawking is one of the first rappers to have a really different rap style, with the use of auto-tune, giving a more electronica feel to the proceedings.

5.) The Mario Bros. VS. The Wright Bros.

There aren't too many fictional vs. historical battles, but the ones that exist are all very strong, and this one is my favorite, because the Wright Bros. are so good. I love the sound quality and the camera work they've done to make it look old-fashioned and Rhett and Link carry the battle well. I love the angry take Lloyd and Peter throw into the Mario Bros. and all the references are just top-notch.

4.) Nikola Tesla VS. Thomas Edison

This is one badass battle. I personally like the battles to be between people with more thematic connections rather than direct rivalries (I prefer Bieber VS. Beethoven over Romney VS. Obama) but Tesla needs his comeuppance and he gets some really good lines ("You didn't steal from me, you stole me from mankind.") but Edison is no slouch either. Lloyd's character work is something to behold, with Edison not being some out of touch inventor, but a crafty elderly gentlemen scoundrel.

3.) Gandhi VS. Martin Luther King Jr.

Key and Peele's takes on Gandhi and MLK are awesome, and their pretty equally matched throughout the battle, but Key's end line as Gandhi is truly epic. There's not too much else to say, because this is a truly epic battle.

2.) Babe Ruth VS. Lance Armstrong

There's something very special about when it's just Lloyd and Peter doing what they do best, just the two of them cutting witty verses at each other. Armstrong and Ruth is an interesting battle to imagine, because they both have such complex athletic histories: Armstrong is now revealed as a drug user but one of the most decorated Tour de France bicyclists ever, Ruth is a baseball icon but competed early on and was by no means a health role model either.
Both have some pretty complex wordplay in their verses and with no frills of cameos or partners or anything, Lloyd and Peter prove once again why they are two of the best ever.

1.) Mr. T. VS. Mister Rogers

My personal favorite of all the battles is this one. The Mr. T is quite good, with some funny lines, but Peter's Mister Rogers is unbelievable. He's calm and convincing, just like you'd expect Rogers to be. He ends the rap on a solid, subtly frightening note, and it's unsettling. I love it.